How to Buy the Best Carry-On Luggage

As a frequent traveler, I go to great lengths to take my luggage with me and avoid checking it. Not only does it avoid the crazy baggage fees, but it eliminates lost luggage and the waiting when you arrive, and makes it easy to change flights at the last minute, with the bag by your side.

This strategy works best on domestic flights and trips originating in the U.S., but sometimes foreign airlines will force you to check your bag, because its weight exceeds 15 pounds. It’s hard to meet that requirement when an empty bag already weighs half that amount.

Since this is the only suitcase you’ll carry, look for one that holds as much as possible. The airline industry has set the rules for the largest carry-on bag at 22” x 12” x 9” or 19” x 14” x 9”, the latter referred to as International size.

Having traveled millions of miles, I’ve used luggage from Tumi, Briggs & Riley, Rimowa, Boyt, Andiamo, Hartmann, Eagle Creek, and many other brands that have come and gone. I’ve found that you generally get what you pay for. Bargain luggage is not such a great deal if a wheel or handle falls off or a zipper breaks while traveling. But you also need not pay the high price for designer brands that sport a fancy pattern, but are no better made than ordinary-looking bags.

Figuring out which brand to buy has become more confusing, as many companies slap their names on luggage coming out of the same few factories in China. Even names such as Samsonite or TravelPro, the originator of the rollerbag, mean little, because each company offers a wide range of products from the very cheap to the very good.

How to choose?

Focus on the materials and construction more than the name. The exceptions are three brands that maintain a high level of quality across their entire line, Tumi, Briggs & Riley, and Eagle Creek. The latter two even offer a lifetime warranty.

If you’re going to take a single carry-on, I recommend one that holds the most: a bag I can pack really full and then, at the last minute, add more items, and am still able to zip it closed. And then after taking that abuse, trip after trip, it doesn’t split apart!

In the order of increasing “stuffability” there are hard sided plastic suitcases, soft structured bags that are made of fabric applied to a rigid box, and soft flexible bags with little structure.

Regardless of which type you buy, look for those that are not encumbered with too many pockets, dividers or inserts that take up packing space and make things difficult to find.

Two wheels or four?

All three types are available with two or four wheels. One with four is called a spinner. The advantage of four wheels, where each rotates 360 degrees, is that you can turn the bag sideways to roll it down an airplane’s narrow aisle and push or pull it alongside you while traversing through the airport, all with little effort, as long as you’re on a smooth surface.

The disadvantage of four wheels is that it requires more force when you pull it, because the wheels are smaller and rotate. After using both, my slight preference is a four-wheel bag.

As to their extensible handles, I don’t recommend a single stalk, because you can’t slip another bag over it without it falling off. U-shaped handles are much more practical.

Which bag type is best?

Rigid plastic suitcases with four wheels vary in cost from less than $100 to more than $700. They’re generally lightweight, attractive with their bold colors, but require you to split your packing into two equally-sized compartments, one in the base and the other in the lid, an inconvenience. But they’re best for protecting their contents from damage.

Get one that’s made of laminated polycarbonate, a material that’s much less likely to crack than the plastics found on cheaper bags. Good examples are the Briggs & Riley Torq International Carry-on Spinner ($479), the Tumi Vapor Lite International Carry-On ($475), and the Rimowa Salsa – 22″ Cabin Multiwheel ($525).

Soft-sided suitcases not only allow you to stuff more into them, but they expand another inch or two in depth by unzipping a hidden fold or releasing a couple of clamps. The best ones are made of ballistic nylon, a lightweight and rugged woven material that earned its name from its use in bullet-proof vests. (Cheap bags often use an embossed material that looks like ballistic nylon, but is not woven.)  Another sturdy material is tightly woven rip-stop nylon, similar to what’s used in parachutes and sails.  Inferior fabrics found on many low-cost bags will quickly shed, show wear, and often tear or puncture. Look for bags with reinforced corners and edges to prevent wear.

Recommendations include Tumi’s Alpha 2 international 4-wheeled slim carry-on($595) or the equally good Briggs & Riley domestic carry-on expandable spinner($519). Both are sturdy with plastic reinforcements on the corners and edges. I’ve used older versions of these models and they seem to last forever.

My preference among all types of bags for a long trip is an unstructured soft sided bag that allows you to stuff the most into it and then squeeze it into an overhead compartment. These bags are an outgrowth from the backpacking industry that emphasizes lightweight, low cost, and durability.  They’re the most pliable, flexible and lightest, and also the most affordable. But they protect their contents the least and are the most easily damaged from sharp objects. The leading brand offering a huge selection is Eagle Creek. Most of their carry-ons cost less than $300.

I really like their new Gear Warrior AWD Carry-On ($269). It has four wheels attached to a sturdy platform to keep it upright, a single huge packing compartment, and several outside pockets.

Whichever bag you pick, choose carefully, since it may just be your traveling companion for years.


by Phil Baker